To the outside observer, it seems like the U.S. Government treats the funding of NASA with the same care and understanding as they do the United States Postal Service. The outside observer would be wrong; it’s not handled nearly as well. And the USPS is going bankrupt…so that sort of gives you an idea of how bad the problem is.
What is the problem, exactly? It’s manyfold, but primarily it’s that you have people making grandiose decisions about an industry that they know almost nothing about. And yet, they view that lack of knowledge as being no impediment to making decisions. It’s like having the guy who supplies meat to the local deli come into your open heart operation and telling the surgeon how to perform the surgery. Insane? Definitely. And it happens with each and every space funding bill.
To be fair, it’s not totally Congress’ fault. Space is a tough business, after all. It relies not just on “cutting edge” technology, but “bleeding edge”. A typical scenario is this: Congress earmarks X amount of dollars for NASA to build, launch, and successfully complete the Big-Science-and-Press-Release Mission (or BS&PR). The plan calls for technologies that haven’t been thought up yet, with inventions that haven’t been invented yet, using materials that haven’t been created yet. Congress, being helpful, also specifies how much it should cost and how long it should take. It’s like asking the Wright brothers to just take the next step and invent a jet aircraft…in ten years…and don’t go over budget.
Innovation doesn’t care about budgets or timetables. The fact is, you can only railroad when it’s time to railroad…no earlier. And the first time you do it will be hard. The first time you try to do it better will likely be even harder.
Now…I’m not saying that the government should just give NASA a 60s era blank check (though it wasn’t really all that blank). I’m saying that if you don’t go in with the assumption that it’s going to take longer and cost more, then you are ill-qualified to make any decisions whatsoever about innovation in general or the space industry in particular. Shoot…even doing something really simple (relatively speaking) like buying a small model rocket kit, painting it up all nice and pretty, and trying to launch it is as likely as not going to end in failure…and a trip to the hobby store to buy more stuff to try to get it to a point where it will launch successfully. Here we’re only talking about off-the-shelf rocket engines and some cardboard tubes. So…all-in-all, I think NASA and it’s affiliates do OK with the tech when they are given the chance and funding to succeed.
This isn’t to say that NASA is a bureaucratic Shangri-La. In order to appease Congress and to cover their asses when things go awry, NASA is an ocean of paperwork. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo would never have happened under the constraints the modern NASA lives with (some of it its own fault).
What to do, then? Congress needs to require that members serving on the subcommittees recommending tech policies have non-cursory technological training . Let NASA administrate the money with oversight from Congress and third-party binding arbitration over issues of contractor favoritism.
NASA needs to be the binding bureaucracy of three independent units having three separate budgets: manned spaceflight (crewed space craft, space stations, colonies, medicine, etc.), robotic exploration (probes, orbiters, landers, rovers, etc.), and space science (lab modules, telescopes, X-series of aviation tech, pure research, education, etc.). While there will be some necessary sharing of technology for blended mission requirements, if the funding is kept separate it makes it easier to fight for your share of the pie — and to keep others from poaching the funding you have.
A major key is for funding to be long-term. Projects should be suspended or end if they become money-pits or if they are too advanced for our technology at that moment. Other than that, there should be mutual assurance from NASA and Congress that projects will be completed. This is why it’s extremely important to have legislators who understand technology — so they have the ability to make the distinction.
I should also make clear that when I talk about funding NASA, that also includes its contracting out to fund, at least in part, technologies and services from outside companies, e.g. SpaceX, Bigelow Aviation, etc. NASA’s job should be to guide and fund industry while also doing the hard stuff that nascent industries can’t afford to do on their own. It becomes a collaboration.
In essence, I’m saying that Congress gets to say what NASA’s priorities should be, but it’s up to NASA to figure out how best to do it.
A lot of people will groan that space pens and Tang aren’t worth all that money NASA gets. Well, NASA gets less than 1/2 of 1% of government funding (currently hovering around $18 billion), so it’s hardly budget-breaking — it’s not even a budget-bender…more like a budget ripple in a funding lake. Also, Tang and space pens were things NASA licensed…they were already invented. Still, there are many things the public takes for granted because they don’t understand how much NASA’s influence permeates the modern world.
NASA has a site dedicated to their annual publication that shows how important NASA is in driving technology. (NASA Spinoff Homepage; and also the NASA Spinoff Archives). As the disclaimer in the 2011 edition states:
While NASA does not manufacture, market, or sell commercial products, many commercial products are derived from NASA technology. Many NASA-originated technologies are adapted by private industry for use by consumers like you. Spinoff developments highlighted in this publication are based on information provided by individual and private industry users of NASA-originated aerospace technology who acknowledge that such technology contributed wholly or in part to development of the product or process described.
What sorts of things are we talking about?
- Tooling Techniques Enhance Medical Imaging
- Ventilator Technologies Sustain Critically Injured Patients
- Cameras Improve Navigation for Pilots, Drivers
- Imaging Systems Provide Maps for U.S. Soldiers
- Monitors Track Vital Signs for Fitness and Safety
- Rocket Engine Innovations Advance Clean Energy
- Control Algorithms Charge Batteries Faster
And that’s just a brief sampling from 2011. When you take a really good look at what technologies we take for granted today that likely wouldn’t have gotten the necessary push if not for NASA, then you stop wondering if we’re getting enough bang for our tax dollars.
People often ask: why spend the money in space when when we need the money on Earth? Um…well…all the money is spent on Earth. Some of the end-product gets sent to space, but the overwhelming majority of everything we send up comes back to Earth in due course.
As much as NASA is about technology, it is more about people. Most of NASA’s machines are custom built. It’s very hands-on. The vast majority of satellites that companies build for NASA to launch are mostly hand-made as well. And every spacesuit. And every spacecraft window.
While every effort is made to not have to custom build everything, the reality is that space is very much NOT an assembly-line endeavor. This means that the money gets spent on people. It gives people jobs…and not all of them have Ph.D.s — in fact, most of them don’t. They are just working folk just like the rest of us. They aren’t ordinary because they realize that if they make a mistake at doing what they do, people could die.
What it all boils down to is this: despite its flaws, NASA is a bright shining American jewel. It doesn’t just take $18 billion dollars from our taxes to make itself rich, not does it simply give the money away. It takes that money to create jobs, to innovate, to share what it learns, to demand more than lowest-common-denominator mediocrity. It shows us the wonders of the universe. It makes us strive. And, regardless of the occasional very public failure, it generates more good press for the country than pretty much all other government entities combined. Neglecting NASA in favor of needless oil company incentives, wasted bank bail-outs, and pointless wars is to put the dreams of our country’s founders into the outhouse of posterity. Americans deserve better than that.
If you are a U.S. citizen, you need to tell your people in Congress that NASA matters. Here’s a link to find out how to contact them. No, I’m not putting up a petition that’s going to get counted by some staffer as one letter. I’m challenging you to write, call, or visit with your Representatives and Senators. Let your voice be heard. Tell them that you want them to stop tripping up the one thing that lets America stand tall. Tell them. Every person they hear from directly equals 100 petitions (true). The time to act is now.